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Kizuna: Nikkei Stories from the 2011 Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

My Seven Days in March

Day 1

On Friday, March 11, 2011, I found it strange that my 10-year-old daughter’s figure-skating coach called my wife’s cell phone around 9 o’clock in the morning just to ask how we were doing. Friday mornings are usually a quiet time for us because that’s the only day when my wife does not have to take our daughter to a daily pre-dawn figure skating lesson on Oakton and then drive her back before her school starts at 8:53. My wife had no idea what the coach was talking about until he muttered “an earthquake” and “Japan” in one sentence. We had not heard anything. I usually turn the radio off when the NPR does its fund-raising. We rarely watch TV, only DVDs and Netflix. Since we had just moved to a new house in Lincoln Park, we had no Internet service, either. After she hung up and told me about an earthquake in Japan, I wasn’t yet that concerned. Japan is an “earthquake-ready” country. The construction regulations are very strict so that the buildings can withstand significant quakes. Companies and schools have, by law, an annual training day to review proper procedures and the best evacuation routes in an emergency. Also, I had never met anyone who didn’t have non-perishable goodies stashed away just in case. Besides, I thought, it was already 11 P.M. in Japan, and my mother must’ve gone to bed some time ago.

When I arrived at my office around 10 A.M. on the Northeastern Illinois University campus, people just kept on asking me about the earthquake. I ran up the stairs and started looking at the news on the Internet. As I read through many reports, both in English and Japanese, I realized that this one was something big, horrendously big. What really hit home with me was that the strength of the quake was unprecedented in Japan and that the epicenter was relatively close (about 200 miles) to my hometown, where my in-laws and my 82-year-old mother live. I was especially concerned about my mother. She lives alone after suffering a stroke a couple of years ago, on the 10th floor of a multi-story condo. High-rise buildings in Japan are designed to sway when quakes occur so that they can absorb the destructive energy. As a result, a minor quake at ground level feels several magnitudes stronger on her floor.

My wife and I tried to call our homes that night, but to no avail. We only heard either a strange tone or a pre-recorded message in Chinese

Day 2

My wife finally got through to talk to her sister who lives in Chiba, about 30 miles south. She was able to reach my in-laws’ house where the father was alone at the time (The mother-in-law happened to be in Australia for a hiking trip that soon turned into her biggest guilt trip). Via email, I eventually reached my brother who lives in Saitama. He was just about to leave with his wife and son to rescue my mother. Usually, it is an easy drive, a little more than an hour on a highway. However, he later told me that the highway was closed, and that it took them almost 6 hours to get to their destination. Moreover, he said the traffic he was in going north (toward the epicenter) was still better than traffic going the other direction, since most people were fleeing southward.

The phone to my mother was still dead. Again, for some strange reason, all I could hear was a pre-recorded female Chinese voice.

Day 3

At this point, although I hadn’t been able to reach my mother by phone, I was able to communicate via email with my old friends who still live in town. They informed me that Tsuchiura was hit with a magnitude 6.9 quake, compared to 8.9 in Sendai, and that there was no threat of tsunami because the city is located inland. I also asked them to check on my mother.

The phone line was still down, but my brother eventually sent me an email saying that our mother was fine. Everything in our house that was standing upright had fallen in the earthquake, including Butsudan, a Buddhist altar. There was shattered glass everywhere. When the quake hit, she was in my old room reading newspapers. For a reason she could not recollect, she had thought she had to hold on to a freestanding looking glass among many other things (perhaps because it was a gift from my late father). The quake was so powerful, however, that she had to eventually let it go; it fell to the floor and the mirror shattered to pieces. After the initial shock subsided, she inspected the damage. No lifelines—gas, water, and electricity—were functional. While she had some bottled water and non-perishable food in a closet, her biggest problem was that a huge bookcase fell and blocked the path to the bathroom. For the next 24 hours until my brother lifted the bookshelf, she had to use the veranda.

Day 4

I was finally able to talk to my mother. To my surprise, she was staying at home alone. Despite my brother’s insistence that she should stay with his family for a while, she was firm that she remain at her home. Although I, too, suggested that she stay with him, not just for her own safety, but for the peace of mind of others (including myself) who would be concerned if she was left alone. She said she’d think about it if the situation became worse.

According to my mother, the electricity came back on the second day, but the elevator was still not operational. That meant my mother, who cannot climb up and down ten flights of stairs, could not go outside. Although the water service came back on the 4th day, it could not reach her due to a damaged water pump. She said that one of my friends brought several gallons of well water for non-drinking purposes by climbing up the stairs. She used the water to first wash her hands and utensils, and then to flush the toilet.

A friend in Chicago informed us today that there is a streaming broadcast by NHK-TV. Our family was glued to our computer monitor all day and night.

Day 5

My mother had several calls from her friends to check up on her. She also had a friend who brought several bottles of water and microwavable rice packs. There were still big after-shocks with magnitudes ranging between 3 and 5. She was feeling as if the quake never stopped. She, along many others, was no longer able to tell whether it was her body or the earth that was moving.

On this day, my main concern shifted from the lifeline and after-shocks to the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, located only about 150km north of her house. They just expanded the radius of the restricted zone from 10km to 20 km. The water-dumping effort by helicopters on TV looked so lame. Each “bucket” can carry only a tiny portion of water to fill up a gigantic cooling fuel pool.

Day 6

The elevator was back in order, she said. I told her to go outside to see for herself if there was any food available in the stores. She wanted to go out, but couldn’t because of strong wind gusts all day. She was optimistic about the nuclear plant situation.

I called Japan Air Line (JAL) today because three days prior to the earthquake I had just purchased two non-refundable tickets for my mother and mother-in-law to visit Chicago on April 12. I explained to them that I wanted to cancel them because their houses were badly damaged due to the quake and they were in no mood for a sight seeing tour in Chicago. They stubbornly refused my request and kept on saying, “The rules are rules,” like a broken record.

While there are more and more heartbreaking images and articles about the disaster, there are also a handful of heartwarming pictures and stories. For example, a collection of pictures depict the beautiful smiles of children at the refugee camp (view here). In particular, one picture caught my eye; a smiling toddler held high by her mother. The original caption read, “A smiling toddler with a long-waited warm milk bottle in the background (she may not see another bottle for sometime to come).”

Day 7

My mother went outside for the first time since the quake. Most of the houses and buildings looked okay, she said, but there a are few old houses that are completely destroyed. The grocery store she usually goes to was open as usual. Although they carry mostly preserved and “instant” food and are out of fresh products (e. g., milk, vegetables, fruits, etc.), she was able to purchase a bunch of spinach. I reminded her that she could boil the spinach without cooking gas by using the microwave oven.

It was the following morning when we heard on the radio that the restricted area around the nuclear plant was just expanded again from 20 km to 30 km, and spinach from our prefecture was found to be contaminated with a trace of radiation. I tried to call her in the morning, but all I heard was a pre-recorded female Chinese voice…

*This article was originally published in Voices of Chicago, online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2011 Masami Takahashi

chicago earthquake JPquake2011 voices of chicago

About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds.

This series shares stories about Nikkei individual and/or community reaction and perspectives on the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the resulting tsunami and other impacts—either about supporting relief efforts or how what has happened has affected them and their feeling of connection to Japan.

If you would like to share your reactions, please see the “Submit an Article” page for general submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world.

We hope that these stories bring some comfort to those affected in Japan and around the world, and that this will become like a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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There are many organizations and relief funds established around the world providing support for Japan. Follow us on Twitter @discovernikkei for info on Nikkei relief efforts, or check the Events section. If you’re posting a Japan relief fundraising event, please add the tag “JPquake2011” to make it appear on the list of earthquake relief events.